The Quandary of all Things Being Equal

Here's how teams will progress in the FIFA World Cup under different circumstances.

Updated: June 24, 2014 23:28 IST
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Representational Photo: Fans during FIFA World Cup
Representational Photo: Fans during FIFA World Cup

© AP

The drawing of lots.

It sounds fine for selecting the winner of a door prize or for deciding which guy in the apartment has to take out the garbage. But is that any way to decide something as important as a team's elimination in the world's most popular sports tournament?

By now, even casual fans of soccer are becoming accustomed to the rules for tiebreakers in the World Cup. If two teams have the same number of points after the three games of the group stage, the tiebreakers unfold like this:

1) Goal differential

2) Goals scored

3) Head-to-head result

The fourth and last tiebreaker is pure, dumb luck: the drawing of lots. No team has ever been eliminated from a World Cup this way, but it has happened in World Cup qualifying, and it decided the placement of two teams - the Netherlands and Ireland - after group play in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. (Slips of paper were placed in plastic balls, which were put in a bowl and drawn)

The likelihood of drawing lots increased slightly with the current World Cup format, adopted with the 1998 tournament, of eight groups of four teams each.

If the results line up just right, it could happen in this World Cup, perhaps with Nigeria and Iran, and maybe even for the United States, if it loses to Germany, say, 4-0, on Thursday, and if Portugal beats Ghana, 2-1.

This random method - the nonsports tiebreaker - is alien to most every other major competition in the world. So is there a better way?

Most soccer fans would oppose using a statistic to break ties, like time of possession, corner kicks or shots on goal. That leaves some other possibilities:

A) A fair-play formula, adding up red cards, yellow cards and fouls. It would be very tempting to go to the videotape and deduct points for flops. This method would put much of the result in the hands of the referees, which is far from ideal.

B) Assembling the teams the next day for a penalty-kick shootout, even if it meant plane travel. The drama would be substantial, as would the television audience.

C) Assembling the teams for a game in which the first goal scored - a so-called golden goal - would decide it.

© 2014, The New York Times News Service

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